For the last two years, Mala Jadwani, a 31-year-old teacher, has received daily messages from her 60-year-old chachi. On their family WhatsApp group, her aunt, who started using a smartphone a few years ago, posts classic older-relative content: garden-variety motivational quotes, prayer emojis, home remedies for body aches, and “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “good evening” greetings accompanied by pictures of babies and roses. On days when her chachi’s messages were particularly prolific, Jadwani’s phone would freeze, forcing her to disable WhatsApp’s automatic photo download setting. 

But last week, her chachi’s WhatsApp messages suddenly stopped. 

Worried, Jadwani called her aunt. It turned out that she had read a chain of viral messages on WhatsApp, which falsely said the platform’s messaging system was no longer private. She was one of millions of users who received a push notification from WhatsApp earlier this month, explaining that the company was updating its privacy policy, mostly in superficial ways. After February 8, 2021, “you’ll need to accept these changes to continue using WhatsApp,” the update read. The thought of her WhatsApp messages being exposed frightened Jadwani’s aunt so much, she said, that she stopped sending messages on WhatsApp altogether. 

India is WhatsApp’s largest consumer market by many measures, but backlash against the recent privacy policy change is now threatening its future in the country. Many people have debated the update with their friends and family, and it’s also been featured in nightly news shows and on the front page of local newspapers. Last week, Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, took out full-page advertisements and plugged interviews with the heads of WhatsApp in newspapers, in an effort to mitigate the fallout. 

The change isn’t actually a departure from how WhatsApp has treated user data for years. The platform has shared metadata — phone numbers, how often the app is opened, and operating system information — with Facebook since 2016. The pop-up notification millions of users received on January 8 sought explicit permission to continue these existing practices. But unlike four years ago, “there was no opt-out option to refuse sharing information with Facebook companies,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the nonprofit Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF).

The new changes are related to how businesses communicate with WhatsApp users. The update made it clearer that commercial activity on the messaging platform has the potential to spill over into other Facebook apps: “a handbag you browse on WhatsApp could pop up later in your Instagram app,” as The New York Times explained. Over 175 million people already message companies on WhatsApp, and the updated terms of service would make it “easier to chat with businesses who may use Facebook business products,” reads a blog post from WhatsApp’s communications team. The post claims that the update would enable customer service features like purchase receipts.

The confusing change triggered a mass exodus of WhatsApp users, who moved to other messaging platforms like Signal and Telegram. After the disastrous rollout, Facebook later announced it was delaying updating its privacy policy by three months, but for loyal WhatsApp users, the damage has already been done. 

WhatsApp's new privacy updates.
WhatsApp

Facebook’s privacy practices and policy decisions in India have long been criticized. What’s different this time are the demographics of the people who are outraged: uncles and aunties. For the first time, India’s most loyal and engaged users are questioning the intentions of an app that has grown to encompass nearly every aspect of their daily lives. 

WhatsApp groups are an indispensable part of South Asian families: they’re a forum for gossip, dodgy forwarded messages, boisterous political debates, and generally the primary way for relatives to stay in touch. Many of these WhatsApp family groups — including my own — erupted with anger and confusion in the days after the platform sent the pop-up message announcing its new policy. 

Sheshadri Narayanane, a friend from high school, is a part of two family groups. He said his 70-year-old aunt falsely believed WhatsApp had been granted access to her bank accounts. WhatsApp recently launched payments in India, allowing users to send and receive money by connecting their bank accounts to the messaging app. The privacy update came shortly after WhatsApp Pay was launched, which might have caused some of the confusion. “Bad timing is my theory,” Narayanane speculated. 

On prime-time talk shows, news hosts likened the update to digital dadagiri, or “digital bullying,” by WhatsApp. “They want to sell your chats — your data from WhatsApp private chats — to business enterprises,” declared one news anchor. 

The debates often took on a political tone. Some TV hosts asked questions about the government’s ability to protect India’s sovereignty. Gaurav Bhatia, the national spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) weighed in, saying his party would go to any lengths necessary to protect the privacy of its citizens. On January 19, the Ministry of Electronics and Communication Technology (MeitY) sent a request to Facebook to withdraw the new changes made to its privacy policy

“Why is it that these social media giants, who need the India market, are having two different policies for different countries?” Bhatia said on a nightly news show, referencing the fact that WhatsApp’s policy update does not apply to the European Union. Some accused WhatsApp of treating Indians as “second-rate citizens.” Local technology entrepreneurs who compete with Big Tech companies like Facebook soon piled on.

Facebook has repeatedly emphasized that WhatsApp can’t see the content of end-to-end encrypted messages, which can be viewed by only the sender and receiver. Alternatives like Telegram don’t necessarily offer the same protections as WhatsApp. Digital liberties activists and advocacy groups like IFF recommend using Signal instead for sensitive communications, and the app quickly became the number one downloaded app in India earlier this month. Signal commemorated its victory on Twitter. “Look at what you’ve done,” read a tweet from the app’s official account, accompanied by an emoji of the Indian flag. 

Though users are downloading Signal and other encrypted alternatives in high numbers, switching might not be as simple for aunties and uncles who spent years becoming proficient in using WhatsApp. Vivek K, a 28-year-old tech entrepreneur, tried making the case to his mother that she should switch over to Signal and was met with an unenthusiastic response: “She said, ‘Now, you’re making me learn one more app? I can’t do it; I’m too old for this,’” explained Vivek.

For now, with the privacy update postponed until at least May, WhatsApp is working to mitigate the backlash. But people like Jadwani’s chachi are still staying away from the messaging app. Jadwani said she hasn’t missed the lack of daily greetings. “No wonder my phone hasn’t had issues,” she said with a laugh.